Writing a couple of decades after King James IV’s death, David Lindsay reflected the opinions of the majority of his contemporaries in his admiration of James as a monarch who had, ‘the glory of all princely governing’ he enthused. A Spanish diplomat Pedro Ayala, who visited the king’s court in 1498 was also dazzled by its renaissance splendour. He wrote of James’s love of war, his personal bravery even recklessness, his boundless self-esteem. James was a man who oozed confidence, ambition and charm. His charisma comes over in this quote of him by Pedro
He said to me that his subjects serve him with their persons and goods, in just and unjust quarrels, exactly as he likes, and that, therefore, he does not think it right to begin any warlike undertaking without being himself the first in danger. His deeds are as good as his words. For this reason, and because he is a very humane prince, he is much loved
Another contemporary, John Ramsay spoke less approvingly of his wilfulness…which is probably the same thing and confidence really, just looking at the characteristic from a different angle. The reports of some foreign diplomats were slightly bitter, victims of being rather picked on by a capricious foreign potentate, and of course potentates are wont to be capricious as my children will tell you, but none of them recorded a pushover who didn’t know his own mind and strategy.
And James certainly left his mark clearly on his country; on its education and law, he left magnificent renaissance palaces, and in his day he raised Scotland’s military capability and reputation to a new level. He was assiduous in his personal exercise of the traditional role of Scottish kings in delivering justice to his people, travelling throughout his kingdom to be there in person, and yet allowing his regional magnates to get on with the business of governing. This was monarchy as she should be delivered.
You will not be surprised to hear that there has been a bit of push back on this image, from about the mid 20th century at least, because that is after all what the historian’s mind is like – suspicious, untrusting, iconoclastic, and generally speaking, non compliant. Questions have been asked, wild statements made; ‘Moonstruck romantic’ was another way of interpreting his approach to foreign relations, ambitions that were completely unachievable, involving himself in a Holy League that embroiled him in a fight he could not afford. An enormous sum spent that his kingdom could hardly afford building a military it neither needed nor was able to use effectively. A lover of the military who ended up dead on the field of battle, largely due to his own poor military decisions and hubris. And, they say knowingly, possibly shaking their heads sagely or sadly, the best thing he could have done for his career is die when he did, because what with his overspending, his desire to punch above his weight diplomatically speaking, his involvement in war – well there’d have been a terrible reckoning to be had and no mistake.
These days the pendulum, which never really swung very far, seems to have come all the way back, emphasising his successes, and even awarding him the accolade of Scotland’s most successful monarch. And whatever you end up concluding by the time we move on, I hope you’ll agree that he’s worth the time and trouble, and could never be accused of being boring because if you do then that’s probably my fault I’m afraid. There’s all the politics and diplomacy, but James IV was your average mushroom, a fun guy to be with, as revealed by his treasurer’s accounts which show him hunting and hawking, jousting, gambling at cards and dice, boating, playing golf, watching plays, listening to musicians and all of that. Here’s a personable character without any side, who would listen to his counsellors and hear what they had to say; and could strike a bond with any of his subjects whatever their station. Those same accounts bear entries such as this
Item, to a wife at Baythcat bog, that the King wrestled a stick from, 18 shillings
What was going on there do you think? Whatever it was, I suspect it was something of a public relations triumph, the king mixing it with his people and carefully picking and losing a mock fight and handing over the money. To be remembered fondly by that community for evermore.
Another story from Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, gives different view; of both intellectual curiosity, but also, if true, of the casual brutality of the elite of past ages. James ordered a dumb woman and her two infants be confined to the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, with all necessary food and clothing fair enough, but depriving them of communication with anyone who had the power of speech. This because he wanted to know what language the children would speak naturally. Hmm. Less attractive maybe. More sympathetic was his curiosity about medicine; he practised dentistry, drawing blood, treating wounds and setting broken bones, which puts me in mind of Bob Mortimer, for those of you who know a comedian who is a fine example of the seemingly normal but actually deeply bonkers, who practises dentistry on himself. On himself – how could you do that? When James himself operated he made sure he did so on others, but he was self aware enough to realise the level of his skills, and he paid the patients for the privilege of allowing him to practise on them. For example, he paid his barber 13 shillings for allowing him to yank out the Barbers rotten tooth. It’s a genuinely potty image, but there it is, in the accounts.
His sex life was something of a marvel, very much of the exotic French tradition, mistresses all over the place, unlike his dull English contemporaries – uxorious Henry VII or the misery of Henry VIII’s sex life, and in between the chorus of Christian disapproval you can sense the ‘wayy hay’ element of the ordinary folk thoroughly approving – it’s the sort of thing your royals should get up to isn’t it? What’s the point of royalty without a bit of nookey?
But we’ll get to all of that in a while because history podcasts are very serious stuff, and we must concentrate on the achievements of great people and the towering and ineffable trends of time – not a bit of slap and tickle. So let me remind you that James was born of Margaret of Denmark and James III in 1473. And at the age of 15 as we have heard, he was at the battle of Sauchieburn, which as it happens was a battle between his father and, well, himself a battle at which his father was killed, much to his son’s apparent distress; and famously, James was said to have worn an iron girdle all the rest of his life in memory of his shame.
James III, as you will remember had been a rather vicious kind under whom factionalism at court had flourished, whose oppression and favouritism had led to political chaos and factionalism. And before we can get to James’s golden age, I have to tell you that the legacy of Sauchieburn were by no means entirely positive. They most certainly did not wipe out the history of recent infighting. And part of the reason for that was, of course, James’s age. He was 15. Which means, oh yes, that Scotland was the lucky recipient of another minority. Hip hip…
It’s a slightly odd minority it must be said, sort of self imposed minority, though who knows what arm twisting went on in the background. First of all though, James was crowned on 24th June 1488 at Scone of course, and he was crowned, rather delightfully, by a Blackadder, though not Edmund but Robert Blackadder Bishop of Glasgow. After I have giggled in a slightly puerile way about the name, you might note that this is a little odd. As you will of courses remember, the medieval Scottish church had argued, eventually successfully, that it should not be under the authority of the AB of York, and the Pope had resolved all the politicking in the Curia from English and Scottish diplomats by declaring the Scottish church to be its ‘special daughter’. Well, in 1487 this had gone further and finally Scotland had achieved her first Archbishop, which was of course at St Andrews – where else you might say, quite rightly. Generally this is a topic to which we must return since in the same year the Pope extended an Indult to all Scottish dioceses which meant rights of appointment and therefore taxation to said ABric at St Andrews. I remind you of this because the close relationship of church and state is very important over the next 50 years – the church after 1487 has been described as a department of state, which is a bit rich but gets over the point. Anyway, the point was that Robert Blackadder, Bishop of Glasgow carried out the coronation of James IV rather than the ABSTA, and this was first and foremost a poke with the royal finger in the ecclesiastical eye of the ABStA, because the ABStA had made the unforgiveable error of backing the wrong man, namely James III. The Bishop of Glasgow was also furious that he had to kiss the ring of St Andrews, and Robert Blackadder would be an important diplomat in James IV’s service until his death in 1508. So with a bit of livid lobbying, in 1492 Glasgow was also made an ABric. It’s a change which sidelined St Andrews and made hollow the claim to the Archbishopric’s national authority.
Excuse me, and I am now in full digression flow but the thing about Scottish history if you will forgive me is the wealth of stories that flow along like burns along side the main river. I suppose it’s the same everywhere, but the Scots do a very good job of preserving them. James IV and his pals were anxious to add every possible piece of legitimacy to this new reign which had so unfortunately started in bloodshed. So they contacted the Dewars who lived near Glen Dochart which I believe to be in Perthshire, and William Dewar duly set off from his highland fastness and travelled east down the hills and valleys to the lowlands to Scone palace bringing with him two sacred relics; St Filian’s Bell and the Quigrich, which was the 8th century saints sacred crozier. Ooh, and I believe the Saint’s forearm was also available, though the forearm I believe has disappeared as also has the bell, or berane and it was called. Anyway, Quigrich, let’s focus on that before everything gets too weird, the Quigrich or St Filian’s Crozier was a relic which had been carried around the country to bring it’s benefits to many communities, and it was entrusted to the care of a family whose name reflected this travelling around, being named after the Gaelic word for traveller or pilgrim, deòradh. So they became – the Deoir family, which became Dewar. It’s obvious when you say it. The Dewar had taken such critical travels for the national good before – the Quigrich had been taken to Bannockburn in 1314, and there it had done stirling work, if you will pardon the pun. The Quigrich ended up in Canada in the 19th century along with the branch of the Dewar clan that held it, and you can now see it in the national museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, if you are in the area. So, I want you to image in June 1488 the Dewar walking or riding from the hills over the 46 miles or so down to Scone Palace to deliver the relic to the great folk who needed it, staying presumably for the ceremony and then setting off for the long walk home.
OK, so back to the serious business of history rather than the tittle tattle of history, the real winner of Sauchieburn were the factions whose persecution by James III had lead to the rebellion, primarily the Hepburn and Hume families. The families seized the royal treasure of around £24,000, and gave themselves nice juicy offices as a reward for a job well done, silly not to. The logical next step was to call a parliament, which had been called almost annually by James III, as it was supposed to be, because it was parliament that was frankly used to legitimise the latest faction in town. But calling parliament had its dangers too – because it gave the forum and opportunity for other factions to object, and do some fuss kicking. So the Master of the Humes and Patrick Hepburn followed a traditional political tactic and dithered. However, Patrick Hepburn picked up the title of Earl of Bothwell which will be a reasonably constant companion from here on in.
It might be good at this point to talk a little about the impact of kinship during periods of minority government in Scottish political history, since without wanting to go overboard on spoilers, we might just possibly perhaps have another minority before we are done. It’s been a constant theme over the last, oh, 100 odd years this thing, these minorities, and factionalism been part and parcel of it. The rubric of historians has been, to a degree, that the Scottish body politic survived perfectly well, or at least that is the more recent rubric, which, coming to this fresh, I have to tell you is a little confusing, because to the casual observer there seems to be more than a little trouble and strife going on, what with safe passes being dragged around town on the back of horses, and Black Dinners and all that. Well, the modern rubric points out the continuities, and there’s a good reason for that which is that it’s easy to look at the big politics stuff and forget that for the vast majority life went on just as before, very remote from shenanigans. And in addition we happen to be able to see that central administration carried on, run very considerably by administrators from the church.
But it is easy to over stress continuity as well. There was the normal sort of disruption that went on when old administrators were sacked in favour of new; Bishop of Aberdeen William Elphinstone, for example was temporarily turfed out back to Aberdeen where he’d famously found Aberdeen University. But we are used to that, happened everywhere all the time, does now; the new remime like to appoint their own men, Cloughie always took Peter Taylor with him wherever he went. The difference was that chaos and factionalism at the top of Scottish society could lead unusually directly to chaos further down, because of the importance of kinship structure, and the stubborn survival of bloodfeud. So when the Humes and Hepburns re-aquired power after Sauchieburn, they each stood at the head of a vertical interest group of kin and locality that demanded to be fed. Patronage and power, therefore, was used by the winners to reward and support their kinship networks; and the kin, when back in power was pulled by the demands of bloodfeud to pursue local injustices that previously they had not had the wherewithal to prosecute. This is why the role of the regional magnate, but particularly the role of the monarch was so critical, and why when the king was absent or did not properly perform their role, it was so hard to create governments with a broad base of appeal. Because everytime the new regime came in, those local feuds kicked off again, with nobody to mediate impartially. In 1488, then, the Hume and Hepburns were joined by two earls at the coronation, the Earls of Argyll and Angus. All these 4 had been victims of James III, all were now looking for redress to have their wrongs righted, their rights re-established. Rather than simply providing good governance. This factional self interest will lead to continual trouble over the next few years. It’s interesting to quote one of the rebels against the new regime, who appealed to the Pope for justice, and in his appeal he stated that he had rebelled because the kingdom had been ‘badly, and confusedly governed’. Here is a simple and straightforward statement of the right to resistance, and a statement of the confusion caused by factionalism
The Estates did eventually meet in October for a parliament, and its main business was to provide a justification and explanation for James III’s death. They arrived at the delightfully accidental formula that he ‘happened to be slain’ on the field of battle, the sort of ‘oops sorry’ school of history, and agreed that James III’s councillors had been to blame all along. Which is a common formula of course, but I would have thought quite uncomfortable if you happened to be a councillor of this new regime.
However, parliamentary compliance did little to stop the local feuds. In Ayrshire for example, Lord Kilmaur, head of the Cunninghams, had been killed at Sauchieburn and the office of bailie then went to their long standing competitors the Montgommeries. The Montgommeries had a choice really; they could demonstrate the incorruptibility of public office, and provide a model of good practice to be praised down the centuries. Or they could use their new position of power to crush their traditional enemies.
There will be no prizes awarded here ladies and gentlemen, you know the answer I think.
In the crushing process, since the Cunninghams cunningly resisted, the Cunningham heir to the Lordship of Kilmaur was killed. In 1492 while Columbus sailed the oceans blue, a new variable came into the equation went the Earl of Angus acquired lordship rights in the area; his clients were the Boyds, the Boyds’ clients were…wait for it… the Cunninghams! Boots, other foots and so on. I’m reminded of a very good article explaining why the military presence in Afghanistan was such a nightmare; because we can simply never understand the complexity of relationships and rivalries that the locals imbibe with their mother’s milk. It feels the same here. Another example to make the point stick; in Central Scotland a Drummond now took control from the traditional Murray incumbent. It takes time, money and probably, violence to change the embedded loyalties of generations. In 1490 some argy bargy got out of hand. The Murrays attempted to levy rents for the local abbot, and did not do so gently; Master of Drummond led his men to evict Murrays from their lands in revenge, but found them waiting for them. In the resulting fracas, the Drummonds they gave the Murray a beating, the Murrays fled but one part of the Drummond faction was not satisfied with such a paltry outcome. Instead, 20 Murrays were tracked down to the local church at Monzievaird, the church was fired and all but one was burned to death. That one, jumped from the window, and a Drummond related to him helped him escape. As a result of this act of kindness, said Drummond was exiled and spent many years in Ireland. Wow. I mean, wow.
I don’t want to give you the impression that Scotland rose in a frenzy of bloodlust; where local power structures were left, bloodfeud could be controlled, but the system relied on a non factional monarch delivering justice with an even hand, and insisting on reparation to end bloodfeud. James IV young though he was, showed early signs of the intense personal engagement that would make him so effective in this. Where his father had been aloof and locked away in Edinburgh, James resumed the personal tour, the ayres of justice, the king giving justice and good governance to his people. It was a good sign – but too little too young initially. The minority was deeply unpopular, and in September 1489 a huge rebellion blew up under the Huntly leadership in the North East, put down by luck as much by skill.
In 1491, the political struggle focussed around the ambitions of the Earl of Angus, Archibald Douglas, nicknamed Bell the Cat. Which is a superb nickname. It comes from an incident in James III’s reign during the 1481 rebellion against James, and refers to one of James’s favourites, Robert Cochrane. Cochrane was a powerful man, and people were scared of him. So they were all relieved why Angus grimly offered to bell the cat. Hopefully you’ll know your Aesop fables and the story of the Mice Council that agreed to deal with a marauding cat by hanging a bell on it. Which was a great idea, until it came to finding a mouse to actually do the job. Angus had then agreed to bell the Cat which he proved pretty adept at so doing, the story ending with Cochrane dangling from the end of a rope.
Well, the resistance of the Hume’s and their supporters to Angus was fuelled by their determination to winkle the Douglas out of their traditional base in the borders. There’s a bit of obvious self interest there; have a guess at which family the Hume’s wanted to replace the Douglas with? Tricky…um. Oh, Humes and Hepburns there’s a shock! Or Humes and Bothwells as we must now remember to call the Hepburn family. But there’s also some history; the memory of the power of the Douglases and the dominance they had achieved in the 15th century was fresh in more general memories, and from this they could draw support.
This time round, the result was a negotiated settlement. It didn’t start that way, and James joined his ancestors by sitting in front of Douglases Tantallon castle with his guns. Tantallon laughed in the king’s face as it had before, but the Hume’s were a bit smarter and the result was a bit of land swapping, and Angus became part of the Council, broadening the regime’s base. And helping feed the young king’s gambling habit as it happens, but that’s by the by. The regime was helped also by the return of William Elphinstone to the Council, which also helped at least moderate the factionalism; here was one man with the weight of reputation to resist accusations of favouritism.
I am going to stop there with the rebellion death and mayhem because it’s just a list really. In the end there were 4 main problems left by Sauchieburn, and until a broadly balanced regime came along that would address them, the factional infighting would continue. Firstly, as we have described, the relationship between the central administration and the regions had not been settled; and this was particularly true of the Northern Isles and the Western Isles and Highlands. Secondly, the call for justice was strong, as we have again just seen. The role of the king was critical in achieving political balance, but it was crucial also in resolving damaging bloodfeuds, and royal justice and law provided a critical glue which held the different regions together. When the monarch was weak or dysfunctional, cohesion was weaker. Thirdly, there was rivalry in the church between Glasgow and St Andrews; the relationship between church and state was unusually tight in Scotland, and the impact of division was therefore wide. And then fourthly was a division of opinion that would run like a thick thread through the 16th century; where should the orientation of foreign policy be? Towards alliance with France, or peace and harmony with the English?
How those issues are or are not addressed, and whether or not the young king will manage to extract his country from the horrors of factionalism, will be the subject of a future podcast, and I can only ask you to imagine how hard I am having to work not to call them a Scotcast. So rather than carry on with church burnings and things, why don’t I introduce you to 6 families. I promise it will be worth the effort, well into Mary Queen of Scots time. A little bit of basic homework a preparation is always worth it, you know it makes sense. Also, I spent roughly 5 hours constructing a chart, which is on the website, in regnal list format. I tell you this for two reasons. One you should go and look at it because it will help you with all the Arrans, Anguses, Huntlys and thing. And secondly you should go and look at it because it took me 5 hours to make the blessed thing when I should have been writing. What I have done on the chart also is list the male Earl, as also their wives. Obviously in a proper history that should be because these women had a deep and abiding influence on political affairs, but I fear in most cases that is not the case. I do it so that it can give you some idea of the alliances going on here; as I have said, without enormous detail, understanding the clients and kinship relationships is impossible, but the marriages give you a guide.
So, Hepburn we have mentioned, a relatively minor player during the 15th century so the latest comer to our list, but in 1488 they became Earls of Bothwell, and in 1491 with a bit of shenaniganising with the Douglas family they leveraged their political power into lands in the south east, and particularly in Liddlesdale. They are a smaller part of our story, but the 1st Earl Patrick will manage to keep his seat on the horse of state during James IV’s reign, and the 4th Earl will very much be part of the story of Mary Queen of Scots, so who am I to exclude them?
The Hamiltons are a powerful family based in they Clyde-Forth corridor in the central neck of Scotland. It’s the current head of the family, James Hamilton who will earn the prize of the Earldom of Arran, and much of the next 80 years will be marked by a struggle between the Arran and the Earls of Angus. Uniquely, the second earl will also be given a French honour, and the Arran earls will therefore be associated with a French alliance for the main part, though by no means exclusively.
Then onto the problematic Douglas, the Earl of Angus. This is not the same branch of the family as were part of the Black Dinner, but again in 1491 they manage to prise their way in to many of their lands in the borders, and therefore despite the determination that the Douglasses should not become so all powerful again, by the time Archibald Bell the Cat the 5th Earl of Angus died in 1510, the Douglasses were very much back in it, with lands in Angus, on the east just above the River Tay, and of course in the borders. The Douglasses play frequently with the English alliance; as do the Earls of Lennox. The earls of Lennox are also Lords Darnley, and a branch of the Stewart, and therefore usually in the line of inheritance to the throne, a matter of some excitement and pain. Their landholding was centred around Glasgow and the Clyde. Their relationship to the English monarchy as well as Scottish means they are at time even in exile in England; Henry VIII will wobble between his sister, Lennox and Angus ands the best vehicle of English ambition north of the border.
So, Arran, French; Lennox and Angus, Anglophile; that leave two families. The Cambells slowly become the success to much of the power and influence of the MacDonalds as Earls of Argyll, led by Archibald Cambell the 2nd Earl until the slaughter of Flodden. And finally, lords of the north east are the Gordon family, Earls of Huntly, who do well under James V, who will be staunchly Catholic but surprisingly suffer at the hands of their co-religionist, Mary Queen of Scots.
So, repeat after me than; the Hamilton earls of Arran, the Stewart Earls of Lennox, the Douglas Earls of Angus, the Campbell earls of Argyll and the Gordon Earls of Huntly. And not to forget the Hepburn Earls of Bothwell. And go and have a look at that chart.